In today’s world, just like in the time of Jesus and when the Gospel according to Matthew was written, interpersonal conflict resolution was a key theme. And if we think about it, Jesus’ message is all about understanding, handling and resolving such conflict between people so that we may go to the Father with open arms and a loving heart. The author of Matthew was living in a time of growth in the church and most of the converts were gentiles. The clash of gentile with Hebrew culture and traditions must have fueled many a disagreement and given rise to a lot of hurt feelings. In this gospel, Jesus prescribes a simple 4 step approach to handling when someone steps on your toes in life: 1) one on one, 2) bring mediators to the table, 3) elicit community support, 4) reindoctrination.
We have all unknowingly said or done something that others found offensive and yet nothing was said at the time. Unfortunately these unaddressed events add up, snowball and fester until that one fateful day when the situation explodes and your relationship, and your life and theirs are forever changed; if only you had known, if only they has said something; you would have apologized, changed your behavior, made atonement, done the right thing. How many times have lives so drastically changes because we were not offered, or we did not offer the chance to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong, please forgive me and allow me to change”? Jesus knew the immediate, cleansing and healing nature of the one on one interaction, how “nipping it in the bud” usually resolves a transgression without escalation. He also knew we can be unwilling to admit fault and this requires the involvement of unbiased witnesses in faith to evaluate, clarify and encourage repentance. And, sometimes our hearts are hard, and our minds are so unwilling that it requires the SUPPORT of the whole community in faith to guide us towards accepting our flaws and giving in to reconciliation.
One can imagine the apostles thinking, “and if all this is unsuccessful, then what do we do”? Without prompting, Jesus tells us the answer without the question being asked: “If he also ignores the congregation, regard him as an unbeliever and a tax collector.” Now many have interpreted this line as a justification for tossing someone out of the church and closing the doors on them. I tell you from my heart this is not what Jesus intended! Consider how Jesus treated the gentiles (and Matthew the tax collector); He called them to listen, to follow, and to learn anew. Jesus never closed the door, He never gave up, and so neither should we. Matthew codifies this need to be persistently forgiving by bookending this gospel with two parables: that of the lost sheep and, the unforgiving servant. In the parable of the lost sheep which immediately precedes today’s gospel: a good shepherd leaves his flock of 99 to tirelessly search for the one that is lost and rejoices more in the reclaimed sheep than those 99 who never went astray. Later, when Peter asks Jesus how many times to forgive someone who sins, Jesus says 77 times (i.e. a whole lot) and proceeds to tell the parable of the servant who asks for forgiveness from his master and yes fails to give forgiveness to one in his debt. This parable reinforces how we as servants of God must forgive those who sin against us if we hope to have our sins forgiven.
In the midst’s of these parables and at the end of today’s gospel is the most poignant and beautiful of Jesus’ teachings: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Jesus is ensuring the apostles, and us, that He and the Father are always there for us, helping us to walk the path of the righteous and as a result of his real presence we too have the power to call back the lost sheep with the powers of prayer, care and diligence. The reward for loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us is clear, when we ask for and grant forgiveness to others, God grants this petition for them AND heaps on us the rewards His boundless love, grace and forgiveness. Amen.